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Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 4 July 2006

3. What recent meetings he has held with ministerial colleagues to discuss energy issues in Scotland. (80908)

In the course of his busy schedule of meetings with Ministers, has the Secretary of State has the opportunity to discuss with them the findings of the Energywatch report, “Are fuel poverty targets out of range”, which notes that, mainly owing to rocketing energy prices, fuel poverty levels in Scotland are worryingly close to where they were in 1996? Has he pressed the Treasury and Department for Work and Pensions to end the scandal that, in energy-rich Scotland, pensioners are worried about fuel bills, and to increase the winter fuel allowance, which is now nowhere near sufficient to meet our pensioners’ escalating energy bills?

Of course the hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that fuel bills have been rising. That phenomenon is not unique to Scotland or indeed the United Kingdom, but reflects general changes that have taken place in energy prices around the globe, because we are now dealing in global markets. He is also right to recognise that, in addressing fuel poverty, there is a contribution to be made by the winter fuel payment. It was a Labour Government who introduced the winter fuel payment and a Labour Government who increased that payment. The winter fuel payment has made a significant contribution to addressing the challenge, but we continue to look at the matter in the light of changing circumstances.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the discussion about the Government’s energy review has been rather focused on electricity generation? Given that electricity accounts for less than 20 per cent. of our final energy consumption, will he ensure that his right hon. Friends at Westminster and Holyrood properly address the issue of improving the energy intensity of our economy?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Although there has been, perhaps understandably, a continued focus in the media on energy production, we also face further challenges—in particular, in relation to energy efficiency. That has a major contribution to make in addressing the challenge of fuel poverty. I know from my experience as a constituency MP the effect of the warm deal initiative by the Scottish Executive in many communities. It affects pensioners right across Scotland. When the energy review is published, there will be recognition not just of some of the challenges that we face with energy production, but of the wider issue of energy conservation.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the work force of Dounreay, by whose excellent efforts in decommissioning the legacy cost of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority has been substantially reduced? Will he further support the local initiative to provide alternative employment for those who are so effectively working themselves out of employment, with an alternative energy park at Dounreay?

I am still struggling to establish whether that contribution was pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear—[Hon. Members: “Both”]—which, in a nutshell, is a challenge not unique to the hon. Gentleman, but which applies to his whole party. Of course we welcome and congratulate people on the work that is being done effectively at Dounreay. There will be challenges in terms of how the work force can use the skills that have been developed over a number of decades. I would be happy to receive representations on that matter from him.

Will my right hon. Friend make it perfectly clear—and does he agree with me—that nuclear power has to be part of a balanced energy policy, and that if no nuclear power stations are to be built in Scotland, future Scottish consumers will be at risk of more massive hikes in the price of gas and electricity, and of blackouts and power cuts, and will also face considerable problems with security of supply?

The energy review reflects not simply challenges relating to diversity and security of supply, as my hon. Friend makes clear, but the energy mix that is appropriate to a modern advanced economy. That energy mix varies north and south of the border. Both Hunterston and Torness operate in Scotland, which accounts for a higher proportion of the energy mix being produced by nuclear power plants in Scotland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

It is important to reiterate the point that I made at the last Scottish questions: when it comes to judgments on new-build nuclear facilities, those matters rightfully rest with the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament, given the terms of the Electricity Act 1989 and the devolved nature of planning laws in Scotland.

Dr. Elaine Murray MSP has said that Labour policy at the Scottish Parliament elections will be not to veto new nuclear power stations in Scotland, yet the First Minister appears to take a very different line. What is the Labour position in Scotland?

I had the opportunity to discuss the energy review only a couple of days ago with the First Minister. It is not for me today, on behalf of the Scotland Office, to anticipate the terms of the manifesto that will be produced by the Labour party. That will be devised in Scotland, as has been the case in the past.

Regardless of what our future energy needs may be, does my right hon. Friend agree that we will need a strong manufacturing base to build the future power plants? Will he reassure manufacturing companies such as Mitsui Babcock that, if they hang on in there, work will come their way?

Having had the opportunity to visit Mitsui Babcock in Porterfield road in Renfrew on previous occasions, I know of the leading edge technology that it is developing, not least in relation to clean coal technology. When the energy review is published in due course, there will be significant opportunities not only as regards renewables but more generally as regards power generation. I hope that Mitsui Babcock, along with other Scottish companies, seizes the opportunities that that provides.

It appears that there is still some confusion arising from the Secretary of State’s position on this matter. My party’s position is clear. Does the Secretary of State agree with Scotland’s First Minister, who appears to be suggesting that, with major investment in renewables, Scotland could be free of new nuclear power stations, or with his colleague Dr. Elaine Murray MSP, who says that Labour will not block any applications for nuclear build?

The hon. Lady comes close to offering a new definition of the term “brass neck”, given that her place on the Liberal Front Bench is a direct consequence of her predecessor’s opinions on nuclear power. We make no apology for the fact that there has been a significant and successful push for renewables in Scotland led by the Labour-led Scottish Executive. At the same time, the position of the Scottish Executive—that issues need to be resolved in relation to nuclear waste—has been made clear for several months. A process has been established by the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations to address that, and that work is ongoing.

When the Secretary of State next has a meeting with the First Minister to discuss the nuclear review, will he bring the Prime Minister’s views to his notice? When the Prime Minister spoke to the Liaison Committee this morning, he made it perfectly plain that he personally is completely in favour of nuclear power and that he always had been before he commissioned the energy review. Surely that is an important matter of which the First Minister should be aware?

The hon. Gentleman is one of a number of former shadow Scottish Secretaries speaking today. The Prime Minister has made it clear on several occasions that, along with considering nuclear power, he wants a big push on renewables and a step change in energy efficiency. Those concerns initiated the energy review, and they will all be addressed when the review is published.